Blockbuster Talk: The Semi-Triumphant Return of Tom Cruise in ‘Edge of Tomorrow’

This summer, two Grantlanders will gather to discuss the weekend’s mega-franchise, counterprogramming comedy, or teen weepie to discuss truth, spoilers (!), and the Hollywood way. This week: Brian Phillips and Mark Lisanti die thousands of deaths chatting about Tom Cruise’s Edge of Tomorrow.

Mark Lisanti: Let’s get into this, Brian, but it feels appropriate to first take a deep breath and calm down from the adrenaline rush of emerging — encrusted in Normandy beach sand, time-bending E.T. guts, and scorched popcorn fragments — from the most thoroughly satisfying Tom Cruise vehicle since, I don’t know, Minority Report? The first two-thirds of War of the Worlds, before Spielberg lost his mind and decided to burrow down into his comfy teddy-bear place? The part of Ghost Protocol when Cruise is flinging himself around the Burj Khalifa like the world’s most well-insured tetherball? There I go trying to pre-contextualize Edge of Tomorrow before we’ve even said a word about the movie itself. Deep breath. Calming down. What did we just see?

We saw Tom Cruise as a weaselly public relations officer in the Army who stupidly blackmails himself from an assignment documenting an ill-fated invasion into an active-duty role as an exoskeleton-festooned tackling dummy for an unstoppable extraterrestrial menace called Mimics. We saw him accidentally swallow some magical alien blood, gain the ability to “reset the day” by, um, dying in repeated and oft-spectacular fashion, and then meet up with former alien-blood swallower and legendary hero Angel of Verdun/Full Metal Bitch Emily Blunt, who reveals the secret of his newfound Groundhog Day powers, which Cruise must harness to become history’s greatest battlefield Frogger player. (Yes, we will be the one millionth and one millionth and first people to point it out, but it’s impossible not to draw the easy but utterly valid Groundhog Day parallel; Cruise is Bill Murray, Blunt is an Andie MacDowell who can actually act, Bill Paxton is Ned Ryerson as a bemused staff sergeant instead of a huggy insurance salesman, and the Alpha Mimic is Punxsutawney Phil. It lines up way too cleanly to ignore it. I guess now we’re done with that part. Moving on.) We saw that once-sniveling military flack become a true hero and save the human race. We saw the best use of Tom Cruise in recent cinematic history.

And I guess that’s where we should start. Finally, a Tom Cruise movie with a proper Tom Cruise Performance in it. Last year’s Oblivion was beautiful to look at but ultimately sterile, and featured the most inadvertently hilarious Cruise Moment since his short-armed game of catch in WoTW: Cruise standing in the ruins of a stadium, recalling the athletic glory that once unfolded there: “I remember the Super Game like it was yesterday … The quarter-man drops back, throws the Hail to Mary … Touching down! Many points! Crowd excitement!” Jack Reacher is probably best remembered for its central miscasting of a fun-size Cruise for a bruising giant. There’s not a single moment in Rock of Ages — a noble if insane failure to “try something different” — that doesn’t feel like Cruise showed up to your Rock Band night with a 200-person sound crew and Joe Elliott of Def Leppard as his karaoke spirit guide. Ghost Protocol was the fourth iteration of a character best known for latex masks. Knight and Day was a thing that happened and that you can occasionally catch on Showtime Misfire East. We’ll go no further back than that. You get the point.

We needed this movie from Tom Cruise. And Tom Cruise desperately needed to give it to us.

Brian Phillips: I guess it makes sense that Edge of Tomorrow would be the Tom Cruise Identity Reboot we’ve been waiting for? Partly because, well, just look at that list of movies you’ve laid out; “wakes up gasping after repeated bullets to the head” is probably the most optimistic career metaphor you could devise for old Tom at this point. And you left out his eyepatch-Nazi savior role in Valkyrie, which in this EoT-as-Cruise-history infographic is the giant flaming infantry dropship that craters him on the beach maybe 30 minutes into the movie.

But Edge also closes an archetypally Cruisean circle that goes back, god, almost 30 years. I mean, Top Gun won the Cold War by making combat feel like a video game — a video game that admittedly included a weird amount of impromptu bar karaoke and some homoerotic volleyball cut scenes, but hey, it was 1986; the industry was still searching for its feet. In Edge, war is a video game, not just in terms of visceral excitement and the prominence of targeting reticules, but in the actual structure of the experience. You start from a checkpoint. You have infinite lives. You memorize level layouts. You make it a little farther each time through. You have an NPC companion who is, with much respect to Blunt’s steely portrayal of a human violence-dervish, sexually not unintriguing. You have a random power involving time. You have a plot that makes no fucking sense.

I don’t want to take this too far, because we are talking about a film whose climax involved a deep dive into a secret alien brain-ocean underneath the Louvre. But then maybe that’s part of the point. Top Gun made Cruise an action star by adding a fantasy element to real warfare; Edge of Tomorrow basically tries to imagine what would happen if a fantasy game became real. What if you were playing Halo and you got sucked into the screen? What would the existential burden of that be like? What if World War II happened again, only with aliens? Bro, how dicked up would that be?

It felt right that Maverick would come back to smirk us through this journey, even if part of the lesson of Edge was that smarm is a weakness a man has to overcome if he wants to burn alphas with Emily Blunt. The Cold War may be over, but World War II can still be reimagined as long as the Axis troops are tentacle monsters. Isn’t that Cruise’s legacy as much as anything? If it’s not clear from this, I thought Edge was phenomenal. Shout-out to all my drone pilots reading this.

edge_of_tomorrow_blunt_gun

Lisanti: I’m glad you bring up Emily Blunt. Let’s talk about Emily Blunt! I almost feel guilty starting the conversation with Cruise given that he’s the second-most credible ass-kicker in the film, and the second-most likable. But this is the world we live in, where this is a Tom Cruise Film, and we must first assess the Tom Cruise Stakes before considering the Scene-Stealer Who Makes the Whole Thing Work. If this were an actual video game, you’d probably choose to play as Rita over Cage. She’s indispensable to the operation both onscreen and off. (A fun meta-reading of her time-resetting headshots delivered to a continually failing Cruise is the history-altering erasure of his career missteps: “Come on, no one cares how tall Reacher is.” BLAM! “I’ve always secretly loved Bon Jovi.” BLAM! “This couch seems pretty jumpable.” BLAM! Live. Die. Repeat. Avoid Oprah.)

There’s something approximating “chemistry” between them, even if the scenes meant to reveal a burgeoning romance are mostly played as time-loop déjà vu to yada yada the kind of connection we’ve long been conditioned not to buy from Cruise post Jerry Maguire. (He really hasn’t let anyone see his soul like this since Jonathan Lipnicki.) But even with the occasional glimmers of the old charisma he’s seemingly relearning as he goes, the vibe he throws off when heating up some Folgers crystals in that cozy farmhouse is more “friendly widower who’s not quite ready to get involved” than “let’s squeeze in one afternoon of doomed lovemaking.” These are baby steps. Here, let’s have a cup of coffee and slowly get to know each other while we wait for the Mimics to pull us apart like string cheese.

But enough about America’s Sword-Brandishing Sweetheart. (She married John Krasinski. She’s an American now.) The box-office results are in. For all the critical raves and Cruise redemption paeans, Edge of Tomorrow got soundly trounced by two cancer-weakened teens. It was a bloodbath, like they saw him coming. Are Shailene Woodley and the Kid Who Likes to Paint Warhammer Figures more vital cultural forces in contemporary American life than Tom Cruise? Do we need Cruise to guzzle John Green’s blood and trick him into revealing the stronghold where the pulsating brain that controls adolescent discretionary spending lives, and reset the Edge of Tomorrow release day to later in the summer? Or does it not matter, because Cruise will always be fine overseas, protected by audiences who want to see shit, not teenage hearts, blow up?

Phillips: It’s tough, because the weekly box-office narrative is easily Hollywood’s most credible war simulator these days. You can drop actual Navy SEALs in a film and the result still feels a little prissy compared to the killing fields of the Sunday tracking headlines. Not even Blunt could protect Cruise from the lava wave of disappointment-publicity that’s coming for him — not even the cleaver-wielding, Robotech-plate-mail-clad Blunt who almost broke my 3-D glasses yesterday. The most she could do would be to tenderly reveal her middle name in the last instant before she bled out by the helicopter.

Not like it’s a new feeling, but there’s always something a little disorienting about Cruise box-office disappointment. Other actors have influence in American culture. Tom Cruise essentially is his influence in American culture. He’s coterminous with it, like Louis Armstrong with jazz or O.J. Simpson with probably murdering people. That was why his downfall was so jarring in the first place, wasn’t it? Because he represented some core truth about the nameless heart of America? We thought that truth was charismatic and winning, and then it turned out to be a thetan-festooned, delusional gnome who just happened to look awesome in Wayfarers. Whoops! Even still, you worry that a Cruise no one cares about will actually shrink, or else turn sort of weak and translucent, a firm-jawed Tinkerbell in a world in which no one believes in fairies.

I wonder if that’s why the World War II Part Deux/Rage Over Europe subtext of Edge of Tomorrow felt so insistent, actually. No Cruise comeback could be complete without a world-liberating freedom agenda, and outside the James Brown scene in Rocky IV, WWII is the last moment when American power possessed that degree of moral clarity in the popular imagination. Hey, at least the comet-borne Nazi plague-aliens were pretty amazing looking, right? Although, seriously, will alien invaders ever stop locating their collective consciousness in a single grenade-accessible hive-brain? It seems like such a shitty strategy for conquering us and harvesting our minerals.

Lisanti: Perhaps that’s exactly the reason humankind has never been conquered — the genocidal aliens are so obsessed with perfecting their space-travel technology for ambitious interstellar invasions that they haven’t bothered to back up their evil queen-mind to a more distributed cloud-consciousness. Maybe the key is to go cloud first, invasion second. (Even Apple’s figured this out; its Omega has been gone for years and it still managed to conquer Beats, strip it for parts, and imprison Dr. Dre in a battery tank in Cupertino, fueling the entire campus with his bio-power.) Stupid time-shifting tentacle monsters! You done got beat by the guy who couldn’t see that a full-frontal assault on the cancer kids was just as doomed to embarrassing failure! And you could see the damn future! Choke on the Mona Lisa and Code of Hammurabi fragments swirling around in your watery Louvre grave, dummies. U-D-F! U-D-F!

One very important thing we’ve failed to mention thus far is that Cruise rides a motorcycle in this movie, so any analysis of its domestic failure must be mitigated by that personal triumph. And it comes at exactly the moment you start to worry he might not get to ride a motorcycle this time, when he seems awfully busy trying to master the staggeringly complex patterns of hundred of thousands of soldiers scattered across a yawning beach. But then, boom, there he is, on a motorcycle. You wonder how many reset lives he blew hunting down that puppy, but it was worth it.

Take my breath away and steer us home, Brian. I feel like our time together is growing short.

Phillips: Indeed it is. Already I have begun having visions; soon, the power will leave us, the day will no longer reset, and we will be forced to live without the alien blood–magic safety net that’s made this Gmail window a marginally less horrifying place. However, this is where heroism happens. With discipline and readiness we create our own fate, or whatever mantra the sweaty-lipped Bill Paxton kept barking in the barracks scenes. Living in a looped iTunes playlist means never having to worry about being on the nose, I guess.

Bill Paxton! We would be remiss if we adjourned this gathering without a nod to Master Sergeant Farell from Science Hill, Kentucky, who hated gambling, upper-lip depilation, and the dishonor of a besmirched upper-undershirt triangle. (Not that that’s a plot point; dude just toted a clean undershirt.) I was never a big Paxton guy when they used to trot him out as a shucksy-voiced quasi-everyman in the Twister phase of his career, but if Edge means he’s aging into a crazed, damp, half-cross-eyed hard-ass who chews scenery like warm tobacco and charges around bellowing ham-fisted thematic exposition, I’m all the way in. Hick avenger Bill Paxton is a little like Tom Cruise on a two-wheeler, come to think of it: You know there’s nothing right about what’s happening, but somehow that safe word just keeps on not crossing your lips.

Final thought: Isn’t the dark secret of this movie that Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt actually find an unrealistically speedy way into the Louvre? I mean, I’ve stood in that line. Five hundred to 700 lifetimes, multiple bullets to the head, and a civilization-annihilating planetary invasion? Maybe it’s that easy in your Hollywood dream-laboratory, Doug Liman. The rest of us live in the real world.

Filed Under: Movies, blockbuster talk, Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt

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